Paul Kemeny is Professor of Religion and Humanities at Grove City College. This interview is based on his new book, The New England Watch and Ward Society (Oxford University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write The New England Watch and Ward Society?
PK: In reading William Hutchison’s The Modernist Impulse, I was struck by his fascinating chapter on how Fundamentalists like J. Gresham Machen and humanists H.L. Mencken shared some common critiques of liberal Protestants. I was already familiar with Machen’s criticisms but did not know much about Mencken’s. So I started reading everything I could get my hands on by Mencken Reading Mencken was enjoyable because he’s such a delightful writer. More importantly, I was far more captivated by Mencken’s critique of Protestant anti-vice activism than his theological criticisms of liberal Protestants. The question that intrigued me was this: why would New England’s leading liberals—Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Unitarians—formed a vice squad? This action certainly clashed with the popular image that liberal Protestants, especially in Boston, were progressive, urbane, and tolerant.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The New England Watch and Ward Society?
PK: The New England Watch and Ward Society provides a new window into the history of American Protestantism during the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. By seeking to suppress obscene literature, gambling, and prostitution, the moral reform organization embodied Protestants’ efforts to shape public morality in an increasing intellectually and culturally diverse society.
JF: Why do we need to read The New England Watch and Ward Society?
PK: I can offer three reasons. First, The New England Watch and Ward Society offers a panoramic historical review of mainline Protestant efforts to provide a unifying public morality for American public culture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While focusing on the Boston-based New England Watch and Ward Society, my book explores the larger mainline Protestant establishment’s efforts to shape public morality. It describes late nineteenth-century Victorian American values about what constituted “good literature,” sexual morality, and public duty and explains Protestants’ efforts to promote these values in a rapidly changing culture. I examine censorship of allegedly obscene material as well as efforts to suppress gambling and “white slavery” (prostitution).
Second, the work explains why the Watch and Ward Society collapsed in the 1920s. The Watch and Ward Society’s sudden and very public fall from grace offers a new perspective on why mainline Protestantism’s efforts to impose a common civic morality upon American culture failed.
Third, the study draws upon a treasure trove of previously-unpublished archival and printed sources and tells a number of fascinating stories about the suppression of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and the sometimes nefarious tactics that publicly upstanding Protestant elites used to stamp out vice, such as planting eavesdropping devices in the Boston District Attorney’s office to gather evidence of his criminal activity.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)
PK: While I was in seminary, I grew interested in the history of America Protestantism during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. This interest gradually grew into a healthy obsession and after doing a Th.M. at Duke, I decided that I wanted to get a Ph.D in American religious history.
JF: What is your next project?
PK: I am currently in the throes of co-editing with my colleague Gary Scott Smith The Oxford Handbook of Presbyterians for Oxford University Press. We have assembled more than thirty-five scholars to contribute essays on Presbyterian history, theology, worship, ethics, politics, and education.
JF: Thanks, Paul!